Container Holding as a Hosting Practice

In the work and exploration of the Art of Hosting (AoH) Conversations that Matter we often talk about the container, creating the container, holding the container – but what does it mean, really? We tend to speak of it in the same breath as hosting, as if it is the same thing.  But, is it?

In preparation for a gathering of sixty five AoH Stewards from thirteen countries that took place in Minnesota in October 2013, Jerry Nagel, Stephen Duns, Bob Wing and I became deeply curious about what it would take to hold a dynamically complex field that included three breaths of Art of Hosting – founders, early adopters and new or emerging stewards, many of whom did not know each other and had never met in person – who were holding, each in their own way, many similar questions percolating in local fields around the world, centering on what it means to be a global self-organizing system.

panoramic photo of circle

We began a series of calls to see what we could learn about container holding that we could apply at the Stewards Gathering, recognizing that some who would be holding the container would not be present in person but would be holding from the rim – wherever they happened to be geographically located.  For our inquiry, we separated out container holding, design and hosting recognizing they often are intertwined, happening together at the same time and that they are distinct in and of themselves.  It was – and is – rich learning.

Container holding is part of the subtle arts.  It is metaphysical, meaning of or relating to things that are thought to exist but cannot be seen. So much of what we pay attention to in hosting, beyond process, people and design, is the invisible – the energetics, consciousness.  It is why we have offerings of Hosting from a Deeper Place or the Art of Hosting the Subtle.

The invisible is alive all on its own and it shows up in the physical in group dynamics, ease or tension, flow or disruption, to name just a few ways it manifests.  We know that in any offering that is co-hosted, the frequency of the team is also alive in the field.  When the team has challenges within, those challenges show up in the larger field.  When the team has an ease of relationship, infused with trust (and usually joy), this also shows up in the field.  What is in the team is reflected back to the team.  A well connected, trustful, aligned team – which does not mean members all think alike – can hold the larger field from a place of trusting what wants to emerge and not be knocked off balance when challenges spark – at least not so off balance that they cannot recover.  The more coherent the team, the deeper they can host and the more process will flow through them rather than the team trying to control design or over-design.

Container holding might look inactive whereas design and hosting might look more active.  When we are hosting, it doesn’t mean we ignore elements of the metaphysical or subtle realms – although we are often not full intentional or conscious about it.  Attention to the metaphysical or subtle realms can also be a sole component of container holding. You can be a container holder and not be in a visible hosting role.

In the work we do, the container can be porous or permeable – and given it is metaphysical in nature that would likely hold to be true all the time.  When the container is held with the crystal clear energy of intention, this intention infuses the field and what happens as much as, and sometimes more than, design does. The hosting can be flexible, which is what we always advocate –  with a willingness to be disturbed or disrupted, trusting the chaordic path – chaos can be good, especially as we learn to sit with it until a natural sense of order emerges. If the intention is strong and held with clarity, disturbance can lead to emergence.  When the intention is less clear, disruption can lead to chaos with no pathway back to order. It is important to not be attached to design, to hosting or to process  – to hold it lightly – which is simply good hosting practice at the best of times.  We can ask the question, what does the container need to be infused with to hold chaos and disruption so it is of service to what wants to happen? It could be different depending on what is the work we are about.

A well held container invites coherence into the field. Coherence is a frequency. When we tune into the frequency we can host it into being to allow or invite it to become present, or more present – like when we hold tuning forks up to each other, they pick up the frequency of each other and become entrained.  How do we grow coherence without control, to celebrate different thinking, recognizing it can all be aligned with a common purpose and clear intention?  Is this not our work as hosts?

Container holding is part of hosting – especially when we are intentional about it.  And container holding has its own energy, its own path and its own coherence.  So much more to explore.  We are deep in our learning.  And how beautiful is that?

Hosting From A Deeper Place: The Art of Hosting the Subtle

The subtle and the physical.  Both are all around us all the time.  The eyes see the physical and we perceive it as “real”, tangible.  It often takes more than the eyes to “see” or sense the subtle.  Since we have learned to rely on our eyes, we have lost much of our conscious connection to the subtle. Yet, it is all around and within us even as many of us are oblivious to it.  It is a natural extension of the physical phenomena or/and the physical is a natural extension of the subtle.  Yet we complicate our understanding of the subtle, ignore it, believe it inaccessible or non-existant.  Or, believe that if it does exist, only a few really gifted people can access it.

Speaking for myself, up until a few years ago, I didn’t believe those gifted people included me. Now I know we all have this “gift”.  It is a sense many of us are re-learning, remembering how to tune into.

This understanding was one of the things at the heart of the call for Hosting From a Deeper Place: The Art of Hosting the Subtle, co-hosted by Narjara Thamiz, Gustavo Prudente, Jerry Nagel and me. Our time together was guided with the purpose of “joining together in a learning field to deepen  individual and collective capacity to host complexity.”  Implicit in that purpose statement is the notion that in order to host complexity well, we need to tune into, discern and understand the subtle, the energetics, the deeper patterns that are also at play.  Tapping into this in an intentional way has the potential to shift the nature of the work we are in and the results we achieve.

Openly talking about the subtle has challenged many of us in the work we do.  Too many times we have bumped up against hearing that this way of working is “woo-woo“. “Don’t want any of that “woo-woo” stuff here, we need practical results.”  Yet, when work is in flow, when it is emergent and generative, people understand that something different happened, that something impactful, useful and powerful has influenced the results, the actions flowing out of the work.  We have been trying to find ways to describe it, words and phrases that are understood and accepted in the world of business, government, non-profit.  Yet truly hosting from this deeper place is beyond words, beyond knowing and beyond not knowing.  This is the exploration that called us.  What does it means to access this place with intentionality, a place of presence.

The first time I explicitly remember hosting from a deeper place was with Jerry Nagel the first time we hosted together in Nova Scotia in 2011.  We looked beneath individual behaviours that were sparking to discover the patterns underneath, working with the subtle field.  Tapping into the deeper patterns elicited design ideas that produced a complete shift in energy, in relationship and conversation within the group.  We happened upon this through inquiry and, when we noticed the palpable shift in the space, became curious about what we had tapped into.

In my last post, I wrote about our design process, about being in the not knowing and riding the waves of emergence that kept surfacing during our time together at Hosting From a Deeper Place in Brazil.  It was all part of working with the subtle and working with the subtle went much deeper than that.

Some of the people who came, came because of an intense curiosity about the subtle, including people who have had near death experiences, experiences with shifts in consciousness, with tapping into different dimensions.  They arrived with curiosity about what we meant by the subtle, invisible forces, that which is before the naming.  Their experiences, our experiences, as diverse as the number of people who came.

The subtle field showed up, in subtle and not so subtle ways.  The beautiful property of Espaço Arco-Íris was designed for this kind of work and hosts groups in this kind of energetic field.

Despite interest from many parts of the world, the people who responded live in North and South America.  In our opening circle, Narjara remembered a dream she had in the early days of our conversation about this gathering.  She had dreamt of a condor, not knowing what it was, discovering the Hopi prophecy of the Eagle and the Condor, a meeting of cultures and energies, a shift from leadership from the mind (North America) to leadership from the heart (South America).

The hosting team designed for the first day and a half.  The third day was co-created with participants.  The fourth day was open space.  We were holding the mystical and practical in our field and this too showed up in the open space.  A session on tarot cards was offered for messages related to our gathering and other events in Brazil at the moment.  Jerry offered the flow game, a mystical tool itself applied to deep and often practical questions people bring as they host themselves.

I offered a question about spirit guides, guardian angels and power animals, what do they have to do with our work?  As I write this I notice my own tension between wanting to share this story and my uncertainty about how it will be perceived by people who read it, who were not there, wanting to honour the integrity of each of us who were part of this overall experience of Hosting From a Deeper Place, not all of whom were part of the session I called.

Taking a deep breath, I am continuing to share, inviting those who continue to read to bring your curiosity and open heartedness to what you read.

My open space session turned into two as someone in the circle shared that one of the participants channels a guardian and would we welcome the guardian into our circle with any messages meant for us?

the circle in the woods

Anita Gomes joined our circle, noticing that the guardian she channels was indicating she wanted to share with our circle.  The guardian’s name is Vó Antônia or Grandma Antônia. She is a “Preta Velha”, from Umbanda, a Brazilian religion that blends African religions with Catholicism, Spiritism, and considerable indigenous lore.

Vó Antônia is an old black woman with completely different characteristics and mannerisms than Anita.  She also has a lovely manner and a beautiful sense of humour.  Those in our now expanded circle had both personal questions and broader questions for her.

There were key messages that resonated for me.  Vó Antônia shared with us there is no need to doubt the existence of the subtle.  It is as real as the physical.  There are entities, beings, guides that support each and every one of us, whether we are aware of them or not. We are on the same team, we just live in different houses.  When asked if we should be looking for signs she told us it is long past the time when we need to look for signs.  No books falling off of shelves, windows being rattled, doors opening mysteriously, smoke signals being sent.  It is far simpler than we make it out to be.

We rely on our eyes too much. They give us false information. We look for physical beauty.  We look for ways to show how special we are, how gifted we are.  Seeing through the heart allows us to see through many false pretences.   Seeing in this way we will be in our knowing.  We will be able to trust our knowing, trust ourselves.

It is not too late to save the planet.  We are already working in service of the planet.  We do not need to be afraid.  As above, so below.  As within, so without.  As in the physical, so in the subtle.

Our gathering might seem small but its impact is significant.  When we leave, we simply need to keep doing what we are doing, seeing from the heart, knowing all is intertwined.  Walking the paths that call us, living purposefully, meaningfully, intentionally.  We are weaving the web of the past and the future together for the present moment.

For me, I came home from this experience in Brazil in the space of expansiveness, remembering from time to time to take a breath and sense beyond my physical form to where the boundaries blur and my consciousness swims, intermingled with other essences of and from the subtle.  To remember that it is not two separate things – the physical and the subtle – it is all part of the same essence, each in its own way.  To remember that my spiritual journey, my life journey, my career path are not separate things that I need to think about how to combine, work and the sacred are all essences of the same thing.

It was and is, of course, different for every one who was there.  The group is still alive and sparking in beautiful, interconnected ways of story sharing.  Many are sharing how they are hosting from a deeper place and what that means to them.  Most of us are still in the discovery of what it means, how it is showing up, how the subtle and the practical are dancing together in powerful, beautiful, noticeable ways.

We are curious to see what more the story is becoming, what more we are each becoming, individually and collectively.

And, while we were told we didn’t need to look for signs, the pictures taken on our last day in our opening circle outside showing orbs of light in the sky and around each person in the circle no matter where we were standing seems a pretty good reflection of the energy field expanded by our time together in exploration of the practical and the subtle.  Tricks of light or just light?  Simple, really.  Beauty and grace.  Expansiveness from the heart.

orb of light in the treesorbs of light

Hosting From A Deeper Place – Working with Not Knowing and Emergence

It was a long time in the planning, a conversation begun two years ago in earnest, a few twists and turns along the way with possible hosting team members and dates.  If you trust in the timing and flow of things, it was clear, Hosting from A Deeper Place: The Art of Hosting the Subtle happened in exactly the right timing at the end of February 2013 near Sao Paulo, Brazil at Espaço Arco-Íris.

The gathering was inspired by Marianne Williamson‘s quote from A Return to Love:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Since it was the first gathering with the specific intent of exploring what it means to host from a deeper place, the hosting team of myself, Narjara Thamiz, Gustavo Prudente and Jerry Nagel sensed the need to spend additional time together beforehand, preparing ourselves, preparing the field for what wanted to happen and we decided on three days.  In hosting work these days, there are typical patterns we draw on in our design process.  For this gathering, there were no particular patterns to draw on.  We felt in the not knowing of new patterns, of what wanted to emerge.  We were intentional in inviting ourselves to stay in our own not knowing about what exactly the gathering was and about what was to happen during those days together.

The purpose that emerged through our deliberate enquiry into a statement that would guide our design process was: Joining together in a learning field to deepen individual and collective capacity to host complexity.

We decided to draw on Theory U to map out our five days together and to incorporate the Four Fold Practice as fully and intentionally into each day as we could, looking for the interplay between hosting self and hosting others, and the dynamic relationship between the mystical and the practical and how that shows up in each of the four practices.

four-fold-practice

Day 1, started after lunch, beginning with a walk through the woods of the beautify retreat centre to ground us in the energy of the place, the energy and intention of our time together and then moved to a circle check-in.

The theme of Day 2 was hosting self and others into a deeper place, moving down the left hand side of the U.  We used body movement and guided visualization to invite an expanded sense of being, enquired about people’s experience with not knowing for a powerful world cafe and open space to invite “conversations would help me host myself and others to go into a deeper place”.

As people arrived this was the extent of the design development we had done as a team even after being together already for three days, holding ourselves in our individual and collective not knowing.  Days 3-5 were completely blank other than knowing the theme or intention for each day.  They needed to be that way, to tune into what wanted to emerge from and for the collective.

Flow of our retreat

The theme of Day 3 was Hosting within a Deeper Place at the bottom of the U.  At the end of Day 2, as a hosting team, we recognized the divergence of our own world views in this work from more practical to more mystical.  Wanting to be in service of the people there rather than any of our own individual needs, we invited any who wished to join our hosting team meeting.  When they arrived, first we asked them why they came to the meeting and then we asked them what going deeper meant to them.

I’m not sure we realized we carried an expectation that going deeper somehow meant diving into shadow and fear until someone spoke about how the Marianne Williamson quote had sparked goosebumps and shivers, imagining illuminating our light.  It was one of those moments when shift happens and everything seems to open up.  The design for Day 3 began to emerge and by the time we were done and names appeared next to each design element, I realized I’d hosted myself out of hosting.  A beautiful and disconcerting thing at the same time.

The design for Day 3 began with movement to begin the embodiment of light and playfulness and set the stage for a guided visualization, after which there was a short period of time for reflection through silence, art, poetry, journaling or being in nature – whatever called to each one.  We moved into appreciative triads with the following questions:

  1. Tell a story of a time when stepping into your deepest fear liberated powerful things in your life?
  2. What is the gift you have you don’t fully acknowledge?
  3. What are you learning about your own talents, gift and light?
  4. Who must you step into being in honour of your fullest potential?

This was followed by three hours of silence, including a silent lunch and then back into our triads, paired with another triad to reflect on what we are learning about our hosting now, followed by a long check out circle, people wanting to share reflections and insights gleaned throughout the day. Celebration, story telling and music around the fire at night.

The next day, Day 4, was clear.  Open space all day.  A world cafe at the end to harvest the day.  The field was now hosting itself.  Noticing synchronicities. Hosting from within and out of a deeper place.  This day seemed to invite the deep mystical to show up in many different forms and conversations.  The field was ready to be in this exploration.  And always we carried the curiosity of how does this inform the practice, how does it translate into the practical.

Day 5.  Getting read to go home.  Saying good byes. Departures. Hosting out of a Deeper Place.  Gently.  For re-entry.  More embodiment.  A visualization of taking it home. Back in our triads.  “When I leave here, how will I balance and integrate my knowing with my internal and external worlds? And what help might I need?”  Then an embodied harvest of our days together, angel corridor and collective poem.  Moments of pause and silence.  Nobody wanting to break the circle.

A field alive with all that had flowed in and emerged over our days together, still deeply curious about the mystical and the practical of hosting.  A clear swirling around hosting self as central, core to all the other practices in the four fold practice, core to hosting from a deeper place.

A group so connected and field so alive it continues to spark and shine across North and South America.  Connected in depth.  Connected in love.  Connected in journey of work that calls each of us to step in, lean in further, challenge ourselves in how we show up so we invite others to show up differently and more fully.

The stories of impact are already emerging and we imagine it will only be in the weeks to come that we more fully understand the impact of this gathering on our individual and collective hosting capacity, especially as we work in more and more complex situations.  We plan to touch back in with deliberateness to harvest more, to learn more, to understand how we host from a deeper place and what it means when we are able to do so.

Activation, Amplification, Acceleration

These three words – activation, amplification and acceleration – have been keywords of mine for awhile now.  2013 is the year I live into them fully and I am already the recipient of the delicious impact of them – which is why I am only now finishing a post I started at the beginning of the month, the beginning of the new year.

These words capture the essence for me of what time it is in the world, what is needed now and what so many of us are living into as we live and work in the ways that we do – fully, as authentically as we know how in any given moment, with heart.  Not trying to solve all the worlds problems, but focusing on what calls us.

These three words – activation, amplification and acceleration – are so alive in my experience of 2013 that they have caught me by surprise. So much is flowing I almost can’t keep track of it so I am learning to trust feeling the flow rather than thinking it.  One of the intentions I had held for 2012 was to become aware of and break patterns that no longer serve me and step into new patterns that serve me better.  As 2012  is still flowing into 2013, there are signs all around me that this intention has borne fruit.  A new pattern is learning how to breathe into flow rather than be overwhelmed by it, so I can continue to receive what wants to show up in the abundance in which it is being offered.

Activation happens individually and collectively.  What is it we want to give life to? What do we want to live and be?  What is it we want to do?  What is the vision of our life journey or path?

It is what happens when we gather to do meaningful work in the world.  We activate patterns.  We activate hope. We activate intention. We activate the possible.  What wants to emerge.  What wants to come to life.

We always have the potential to activate.  Often we do it unintentionally.  I and some of my good friends and colleagues are living into the question of what happens when we do it with intentionality and awareness.  Feeling this year is particularly about activating the mystical in step with the practical.  How do we live with a foot in both realms, each fueling and feeding the other?  And, for me, it is activating with boldness.  In 2009 when I articulated my purpose statement, the word “boldly” included itself – I boldly bring my healing gifts to the shifting shape of the world and the regeneration of its people.  It is only now, four years later, that I feel it truly activated in me and in how I am intending to show up in the world.

Amplification.  What happens when we activate together, in a collective field.  I can journey alone.  We can each work alone in our individual realms.  But, when we activate together we amplify the impact.   It becomes stronger and more powerful.  The energetic field is amplified. This is one reason we host with others.  More happens and more quickly.  The mystical expands and is amplified.  The practical moves more swiftly, carried by more people and stronger intention.

Amplification leads to acceleration.  Things happen faster.  Healing happens faster.  Not necessarily because we intend to go faster but because the conditions emerge for acceleration.  There is a discernment here between being busier at work and in our lives which comes simply from acting and doing, trying to do more, faster.  The kind of acceleration I mean here is the result of tending the field, the spiritual, the energetic, the mystical.  Grounded in this kind of energy, acceleration is the flow that naturally emerges as synergies occur and synchronicities appear.   The things beyond which we could have planned.  The people and events that show up in right time and right place.  As if they have been waiting for us or we have been waiting for each other.

heart on fire

I have been learning about these three words since I started using them a few years ago.  This is the year they are on fire for me.  They are part of what has inspired me to be in the journey of the offering of Hosting from a Deeper Place: The Art of Hosting the Subtle in Brazil at the end of February 2013.  A conversation that started years ago with my beautiful friend Narjara Thamiz and grew to include our co-hosts Gustavo Prudente and Jerry Nagel.  An offering that has seen many potential dates come and go until it finally landed in the first quarter of 2013.  An offering that has attracted friends and colleagues from Brazil, the United States and Canada.  An offering where we will lean into our not knowing, hold the space for emergence and where these three words – activate, amplify and accelerate – will be very much alive for me.

I am in wonder of how vibrant and alive life is as I learn to feel my way into it more, grow my own receptivity to what is emerging and live fully into the gifts I have to offer as this second half of my life continues to unfold in blessed and graced ways.  I am humbled and renewed every single day.

Art of Hosting – Universal or Not?

When people ask me if I do “this” for a living, the answer is, of course, yes. But they don’t really know what they are asking.  They are asking about what they are witnessing or experiencing in this given moment – a specific Art of Hosting training, a planning process, a team building session, a leadership development training, a community engagement process, a World Café or any other range of possibilities and possible places I might be invited to host or show up in.  And this is not just true for me.  It is true for many of my good friends and colleagues who are in this work.

It is a matter of what you see is what you get and what you get is far more than what you see. Going away from any of these singular events thinking this is it, that you know what it is, that you know it, is an easy assumption to make – and it misses the point.  It often seems so simple, often seeming to flow easily and effortlessly, even in groups or situations where tension or conflict has been evident.

Yet, when people get the “behind the scenes” invitation through being on a hosting team or a design and delivery team for a training or for client consulting work, they will often say that is where the real learning starts.  They begin to see what we mean when we say that 80% of the work happens before we ever get in the room.  It is also why some of us believe in being as transparent as possible in our process.

These days, when I describe the Art of Hosting to people, I’ve been borrowing from Jerry Nagel from the Meadowlark Institute because I love the clarity and simplicity with which he speaks it.  As a set of patterns and practices to work with complexity, that invites non-judgment or curiosity and generosity of spirit, of listening.  It invites us to be present, to stay in the place before the knowing until clarity, and knowing from a different place and quality, emerges – all of us and especially the hosting team.  We believe that conversations matter and good conversation leads to wise action and different results.

I am in deep reflection about the universality of art of hosting patterns and practices and the trap we set for ourselves if we believe universality equals one map, one path, one way to do it.  Overlay the successful work of one organization or one training on everything as if that was THE way to do it.  There is no one way to do it, no one practice or pattern that responds to everything.

It is the variety of hosting situations I’ve been in recently that have me in this deep reflection.   In Palo Alto in August 2012 for the first Art of Hosting training in California.  High tech, consultants to high tech, social innovators and a few pastors in the room.  Wanting to do business better.  In the Phillips Community of South Minneapolis in September 2012 with a remarkedly culturally diverse group of people, many of whom are community activists. Wanting to live in community together better. In Nova Scotia, also in September, working with a brand new charity Nourish NS responding to the need for a new structure for the delivery of breakfast programs in schools, birthed a year ago and still in it using the chaordic stepping stones, birthed out of need, chaos, confusion and pain.  In Fredericton in October 2012, a little AoH taster to sense into the need, opportunity and timing in that province for a second Art of Hosting training there, responding to themes of social change and community engagement.

Very different situations.  The “art of hosting” “worked” in each one.  I use quotations to remind myself that even what I’m writing about is nebulous and that the words evoke certain images, assumptions and expectations as I use them and you read them.

In California, knowing that getting people in the room required us to think very strategically about what would attract them, working with the calling team to find language that bridged Art of Hosting and business; finding that language that invites is a common practice and part of the invitation process no matter where we go.  Working with the concerns of the calling team about whether this group would sit still long enough to experience a deep circle, to dive into a three day process and stay present.  Yes, they wanted to get to action.  And they wanted to meet each other human to human, wondering how to do that in a world that does not always invite the human to human exchange.

In the Phillips Community, when we asked the people who came where they are from, beyond where they live, you could feel the ripples out into the world and then even more ripples when we asked them where their ancestors are from, circling the globe. Coming together to address tensions and violence in the community, their community, to imagine the kind of community they want to create, they want to live in, together.  Finding their way past commonality and past difference.  Human to human.  Getting to action that has the potential to shift the dynamic of their community, co-creating through new quality of relationship and understanding.  Practicing generosity with each other.

For Nourish NS, deep in a question of how to shift their shape from the “kitchen table” to the “board room”, grow their board, grow their capacity as an organization, adhere to Revenue Canada charitable guidelines and maintain the culture they have been intentionally cultivating over the last year or more that is creating an organization that looks different, feels different and invites people into a different experience.  Living their mandate.  Living their principles.  Prototyping how to be and work together and knowing they are in an experiment with clear deliverables, creating decision trees and governance structures to bring clarity and still allow emergence and nimbleness of response.

In Fredericton, a beautifully diverse group of people from the Department of Health, Renaissance College, students, city councilors, the provincial government, university professors, community activists.  Just three hours to dive into what might be possible with Art of Hosting and feeling like we had just begun a three day training but now everyone needed to go home percolating the vast array of questions we invited into the room about social change and community engagement.  Not leaving it nice and tidy, wrapped up in a bow with all the answers. Leaving it in the messiness that invites curiosity, invites exploration, invites a deeper dive together to discover what some of the answers might be.

AoH is only “universal” because it is adaptable, responsive, tuned into who’s coming, what their questions are, who and what shows up in the space, guided by a deep sense of purpose.  Tuning into the ebb and flow of patterns, energy in the room or field in which we are operating, cultivating emergence, leaning into what is wanting to show up in the space – not a set agenda, not a beautiful power point presentation, not all the answers or solutions but a living, breathing individual and collective experience.

In November, I’m invited back to Minnesota to go into another community experiencing many of the same challenges as the Phillips Community.  The core hosting team of four of us will be together again with some of the members of our apprenticing team and more people from the local community.  Our biggest mistake would be to assume that because we did it once well in the Phillips community that now we know what to do.  Of course, we have some beautiful learning from the Phillips community and from our individual and collective experiences from all the places we go.  But the only way we will really know what is needed the next time is to sense into the need and opportunity, the people who are coming, where they are from, the questions they bring, the hopes we are discerning and allow a purpose that is relevant to that work to emerge, let it guide the pattern we identify for the work of the days we are together and then be prepared to let it all go as people show up, we meet them where they are, see more deeply the questions, experiences and aspirations and let that guide what wants and needs to happen there.

I know from where I travel in the world, from the conversations I have, that AoH is universally applicable. But if we stop at that statement then we truly miss how this is so.  It is not the practices, frameworks, methodologies or even the patterns.  It is our ability as a hosting team to continuously sense into what is there, be prepared to let go of any of our own notions of what needs to happen, co-design on the fly from our individual and collective experience, wisdom and knowledge and to be responsive to all that shows up – the tension, the beauty, the joy, the humanness, the messiness and then work with the patterns, practices frameworks and methodologies to co-create the conditions to allow us to go deeply and well into the places waiting to be called forth.  There is a reason why it is called the Art of ….

Anyone who’s ever been to more than one well hosted gathering will tell you, it’s different every time.  And if that hasn’t been your experience, maybe you need to become curious about why that was so, challenge your own knowing and prepare to dive deeper into your own learning – or co-learning – because we are in it together.

Slowing Down to Go Fast

Our world moves so fast we all want it done now, or yesterday – whatever “it” is. The paradox is, we don’t have time to go fast anymore. But it’s not just about slowing down. It’s slowing down, adding in intentionality, purposefulness and patterns of movement – often non-linear and iterative – to take us to places we’ve never been before but that we’ve dreamed and know have to be possible. We want to get to this new place but we keep repeating the patterns that have never gotten us there before – Einstein’s definition of insanity.

Add into the mix, the complexity of today’s challenges generally means it is not a straight path from A to B and even if it is, your destination is probably somewhere else.

What does slowing down mean?  One is taking the time to acquire new lenses with which to view the challenges and complexity we face.  Another is learning how to use conversational methodologies well – tuned into purpose and intention as a guiding principle for how to design, enter and engage the questions of most relevance to what’s needed now – in growing learning, tackling innovation or bridging organizational divides.  It is not simply a learning and development opportunity.  It can be a formidable strategy to grow an organization, engage a challenge, conceive of innovative processes and/or products that serve the mission or mandate of your organization – as you already know.

These things are all possible using the principles and practices alive in Art of Hosting practices and frameworks.  Art of Hosting is not just a training.  Seasoned practitioners use it in consulting work all over the world – in every sector, for small and large initiatives, to launch new organizations and teams and to shift whole systems.  It is not just theory.  It is today’s complex challenges made real.  And it takes time.

For the training work we do, we often get asked about three days.  When money is no issue the larger question that looms is, “Is it worth three days of my time?”  Well, that depends.  On how aware you are of the value of slowing down to go fast – slowing down to allow insight to percolate, new perspectives to digest into new approaches and new strategies to emerge in animated and reflective conversation with other bright lights called to gather together in three days.  Because there are an amazing number of bright lights who show up for any training – of all ages, backgrounds and perspectives.

The beauty of being in 3 days or more with the same group of people is it invites the pattern of divergence-groan zone/emergence-convergence to show up.  There are many times when I’ve been asked at the end of day 2 of a three day training how is it going?  If I write that story, it is a very different story of what emerges because even subtle things shift and change in one more overnight or one more conversation evoked through a powerful question.  There is something in a three day pattern that lets us sense more fully into what our questions are, explore them in the company of others also asking powerful questions, seeing not just synergy but emergence – where we all gain something that no one person brought into the room, and we begin to imagine, often with extensive detail, how we will use what we’ve learned when we go back to work.

Not everything needs to slow down of course.  Not everything needs three days.  Some need less.  Many need more. But we refuse to take the time – we believe we don’t have the time, other things are more pressing, we will get too far behind – lots of limiting beliefs we carry individually and collectively.   But what about the things that do need three days and maybe longer? Percolation does.  New perspectives often do.  Imagining – really imagining the new – does.  Shifting paradigms does.

When we give ourselves permission to slow down we also invite ourselves to be surprised by what emerges and how fast things move with new clarity.  It is a wise investment of time and necessary for those of us imagining how to shift the shape of the worlds we touch.

Navigating the Groan Zone is an Art

For a such a simple little concept, the divergence-emergence-convergence model we use in the Art of Hosting sure packs a punch.  It is a simple teach that can be done in 10 minutes – or longer – if time, space and the opportunity to engage others in the conversation allows.  It sheds light on design process, the groan zone and people’s experience.  Navigating the groan zone is an art form that often arises out of our ability to host ourselves well.  Stories from a recent Art of Hosting training a bit later in this post.  First a bit about the model.

Divergence-Emergence-Convergence – a simple model with an interesting challenge

The divergent phase of this model is akin to brainstorming.  We want as many ideas as possible to emerge so we can later select the best ones to develop further.  It has much broader application than brainstorming though.  It is about expansion.  It is where ideas are generated, information is collected,  issues or challenges are sensed into to gain more insight or shift perspective or simply where we holding open the space for possibilities to enter in.  It is not a time for evaluation.  We don’t need to know what we will do with the information.  We don’t even need to know whether the information is ultimately useful while we are in the divergent phase of the learning, the work, the project.

As we begin to feel overloaded, overwhelmed or uncomfortable, or we begin to question “the process”, or the leaders or hosts of the process, or we are just tired and grumbly, we are desiring understanding and often looking for convergence.  What does it all mean?  What should we do now?  When can we be done?  All questions that indicate we are near or in the groan zone.

In an effort to avoid discomfort, end discussion, or just get to the end now, we are often tempted to circumnavigate the groan zone by picking an idea, or a solution prematurely – any reasonably good one will do – and developing it into “the answer”.

Some things happen when we do this.  One is that we may miss the truly important things.  By prematurely closing a conversation, the essence or pattern of it often comes back.  We think we made a decision but the decision is questioned and we end up in a new round of conversation about things we thought were settled, growing frustration and dissatisfaction later on.  Staying with the discomfort just a bit longer might emerge a different idea or opportunity or a new understanding of where are at and why. What if we became curious about where we are instead of wanting to shut it down?  What might then emerge?  What if we ask the question, what else is going on here?  What is underneath the conversation, the unrest?

Navigating the groan zone is an art of discernment in many ways.  It is also a skill we can develop.  I recently had someone send me a note, asking me how a training was going.  The note arrived exactly in the groan zone at the end of day 2.  I thought about replying and knew it was just impossible to explain succinctly where we were in our process – unsettled, a bit disconnected as a group, unclear about what all was bubbling.  Sure enough, the next day things flowed together, the group became more cohesive and new possibilities emerged.  I had a new story to share about the groan zone and the importance of staying in it in our processes, not prematurely attempting to assess the success or failure of a conversation, a training or a process. We don’t just need to stay tuned to the groan zone, we need to be alert for convergence and good timing of it.

A couple of stories about the groan zone from recent hosting experiences.  These two stories come from the first AoH training for Rio de Janeiro in Brazil at the end of April 2012.  Two of my co-hosts (on a team of nine) were Jerry Nagel from the US and Maria Barretto from Brazil.

The first story is from the hosting/calling team.  We met, as is normal practice, the day before for our check-in and design process for the training that was in front of us.  In the couple of weeks just before the training, it filled so rapidly most of us had no idea we had reached our capacity of about 50 people in the lovely retreat centre we were at near Petropolis.  Even in this last night before we were to begin, people were sending emails saying they wanted to attend.  In the normal flux of what happens leading up to a training, some people were appearing, some were saying they couldn’t come and we were left trying to figure out what to do.  We had five people  on a waiting list.  There were two possibilities: begin the list for the next Rio AoH or refer them to an AoH that was to happen in Sao Paulo a few weeks later.  We circled around a decision several times, even as we tried to move on, but never landed.  We were clearly in the groan zone.  Maria was the first one to suggest this conversation was not about numbers, there was something deeper that maybe we needed to become curious about and pay attention to.

After two hours we agreed as a team that we would just say yes.  Full invitational energy.  You want to come?  If you can still come we will figure out how to make room.  Calls went out to the five people, three of whom showed up the next morning, two of whom had a 7 hour drive to make it happen.  What was our conversation about?  Letting go.  Inviting.  Trusting.  When we entered full invitation, we passed through the groan zone as a hosting team.  Something shifted for us. Beyond the decision itself. Into the collective space of being a team.

The second story – this time from the full group.  Day 3 of a 4 day training.  The morning is all about hosting self – embodiment, art, silence.  Not everyone is comfortable with meeting self.  We decide not do a collective harvest of the experience but to leave it with individuals.  The afternoon is Pro-Action Cafe – one of the best I’ve ever seen as my Brazilian friends take it to new levels, engaging the participants while the conversation/project hosts are reflecting on what they have learned so far.  “What does it feel like to host other people’s dreams?” is the question they ask, a question that touches me heart.

After the proaction cafe, we enter a debriefing space.  It’s been a long day.  First comments are quite positive and excited.  Then there is a shift. The comments and questions that are now coming into the space do not, in my perspective and through translation, seem to reflect the proaction cafe experience.  So, I become curious.  As I pay attention, I begin to wonder, what is the level of discomfort from the morning experience that seems to be bubbling up now?

The day before, Maria taught the divergence-convergence model, speaking about the groan zone.  In this moment, as I listen I know we are in the groan zone.  I listen for an intervention point and take the talking stick – a paint brush from the centre that many who speak are holding as if it is a microphone.  I step into the centre of the circle and begin to walk it.  I say, “Friends, yesterday Maria talked about the groan zone.  Today, now, we are in it.”

Someone says, “So we should be celebrating.”

I chuckle.  “Yes,” I respond, “We should be celebrating.” I pause, “We need to be careful that we do not assume that our individual experience is the experience of the group.  The things that really resonate with me might be the things you are most challenged by and vice versa.  This is an invitation for us to each own our own experience and to become curious.”

From here, I am not really sure where we want or need to go next.  I invite the hosting team into a transparent conversation about how we want to proceed.  There is one more thing we had been planning but we are now into the time for that process.  Things take on a life of their own and we enter into a fishbowl experience.  I’m still not sure how that happens, but we flow with what is emerging in the space.  As a host team we have a little conversation about what will serve best now.  Participants enter the fishbowl and offer their experience and their questions.  One person asks, “Why don’t you, as experts, just tell us what to do now?”  Good question.  We invite it to sit in the room with us til a bit later.

After hearing from more people one clarity emerges for me.  I  want to be sure we honour the stepping in of volunteers to host processes they had never hosted before and I feared itt was being lost in the ripples showing up in this groan zone.  The response to the question of why we didn’t just provide the answers for people?  “Looking for someone to provide the answers is a typical reaction when we are in the groan zone.  Learning to co-sense and co-learn into what is needed next is the learning edge we are all on.  An answer too soon might not be what we need at all.”  People are nodding.

As we have heard the feedback and sensed the room, I suggest maybe we need to wrap up.  One of the desires in the room is to end for the day and dance – beautiful Brazilian circle dance.  Jerry states, with a beautiful level of intensity, “I didn’t come all this way to just stop and dance now.  There is more learning to be offered.”  People around the room nod.  This is another thread very present in our space.  Maria finally suggests we wrap up for dinner and, for those who want to, we will reconvene after dinner to hear stories of where the methodologies have been used and the impact of them.  This is ultimately the path we choose.  Pretty much everyone shows up for the evening of storytelling.  There is a hunger in the room.  It is a good call.

In the middle of the groan zone we modeled how we can hold the intensity of it, offer up various points of view, and maintain integrity and depth of relationship in our field.  We feel the relief in the room and we know the tension we have been holding in this moment.  Many people later thanked us for modeling what we speak about, that it was a powerful moment for them.

The next morning, we know we need to converge well.  We invite triad conversations as a check in.  People are asked to reflect on their greatest learning and how they are going to take their learnings home.  It is a powerful convergence moment as people reflect on their experience and how to apply it.

Convergence is not necessarily something that happens half way through the process as is depicted in the diagram.  More likely it will happen 2/3 or 3/4 of the way through.  And, when we have navigated the groan zone well, it happens swiftly.

In a lot of our planning processes, I will often say they are front end loaded. If we take the time to sense into what is needed, and the time to be in conversations that take time, with the curiosity about why, we create the conditions for “magic” to happen. I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a process where “magic” happens when we haven’t had to navigate the groan zone with attunement, patience and awareness.  There are ingredients that lend themselves to magic and navigating the groan zone with presence, patience and attunement are some of them.  It is sometimes the most challenging space we hold, but the rewards are bountiful when we do it well.  And whether we do it well or not, the learning is rich.

Innovators and Pioneers in Systems Change

In Utah for Healthier Health Care Systems Now (January 11-13, 2012), we used the 2 Loops Model of Systems Change as one of the framing references for why we were gathered. It is a tool and a framing to understand the work we are individually and collectively in that shifts the shape of health care.  The two loops model looks like this:

 

The first loop represents the old system, the one we often name as the dying system.  The second loop represents the new system, the one we keep claiming we want, the one we think cannot emerge by fiddling with the old, the one we believe is needed to bring our current systems out of crisis.

The problem is, when we begin to think about the complexity of something like health care, where there are so many jurisdictions, so many players, so many interlocking systems,  trying to imagine what this new system or systems could be becomes paralyzing.  The conversation often becomes philosophical and theoretical.  It largely comes from an intellectual and cognitive place focused on all the things that need to shift that are outside our circle of influence.

Some of the frustration in being innovators inside of systems is that the systems begin to push back on the work in small and large ways, leading to the exhaustion, frustration and disillusionment so many leaders in health care experience.  This is all part of the old narrative.  Of course this showed up in our conversations in Utah to greater and lesser degrees depending on the questions, depending on who was in the conversation at any given time.  Any time we were in that conversation, thinking about the new system, it didn’t feel like a new conversation.

So, how could we be in conversation about Healthier Health Care Systems Now without  focusing on the second loop or the new system?  Well, by remembering who we are – pioneers and innovators in health systems – working under the first loop – in the in-between spaces – championing the new or being championed.  We began to focus in on and explore new questions: Where are the edges of my work?  What is the new territory I could begin to walk when I go home?  How can I draw on the resources in the room to expand my thinking, even turn it upside down and on its head – like the person who relies on gift economy in her practice, for her livelihood?  What more becomes possible in generative spaces with other innovators?  This was a different conversation, in tone, texture and energy.  This one did not come from the head. It was embodied in a whole new way – the beginnings of a new narrative of health.

The awareness of the old narrative and of the stuck places infiltrated us in the best of ways at the end of the first day of our three day gathering.   Someone suggested what we needed to do was create a vision of the new.  Ordinarily I might agree.  In this case though, that didn’t feel right.  It felt like it would take us further off track given that our roomful of people were geographically stretched from coast to coast across two countries with countless “systems”?

So, without taking our eye off the intention of shifting the narrative of health, we refocused on innovating and pioneering and guerrilla tactics of  hosting, collaborating and co-creating, engaging those around us in this journey that is health.  We didn’t leave with a specified vision of the new system.  We left heartened in our respective journeys, knowing the way to the future is through new processes, deeper conversations and finding our way with as many of our friends and colleagues as we can attract, engage and embolden along the way.

As we continue to shine the light on the experiments already underway, the successes, the challenges and the “failures”, and tap into the individual and collective resilience that is fighting to emerge, we can remember it is a journey that will shift and change as we go.  We remember life actually wants to help and it wants to heal. If we focus on how to expand our individual systems of influence and share those stories with our friends, our collective system of influence automatically begins to expand.  What seems like isolated work informs pockets of work elsewhere and we grow an energetic field that is part of the new, part of the second loop and is fueled by everyone stepping into innovative, courageous and pioneering ideas and projects.

I still can’t see what that second loop is for health care – other than it is about health and it is healthier.  I’m not sure anyone who showed up for this conversation can see the second loop either.  But I am absolutely sure that the innovators and pioneers are already prototyping what’s possible, what’s new, and in this work more and more of the new and the new narrative will show up.  I am reinvigorated by what’s possible, by the people who continue to explore these questions, who challenge the status quo, despite possible personal risks in doing so and know that there are better and more healthy ways to engage health care.

I and my hosting mates are committed to convening more of these conversations with people compelled to be in them to grow the field.  We envision large gatherings of people convening in new ways, continuing to innovate our way into the new system(s) so that maybe one day we will wake up and see in front of our eyes what we once thought impossible – a new generative system of health resilient enough and healthy enough to be sustainable in unexpected and beautiful ways.   If we take our eyes off the urgent need for something that feels impossible and put it in the places where possibility thrives… well, what more is there to imagine or say?

Steve Ryman, Tenneson Woolf, Kathy Jourdain, Marc Parnes

 

 

2 loops of systems change

High Performance Result of Human Transitions

In my last post I wrote about the fundamental discontinuity between good and exceptional organizational performance, after hearing a talk given by Ray Ivany, President and Vice-Chancellor of Acadia University.  That post focused more on the systems side of performance and this one focuses more on the people side of high performance.

High performance organizations are filled with great human beings, not dysfunctional ones and not dysfunctional dynamics – which doesn’t mean that things don’t sometimes get messy. Creating a culture of high performance means paying attention to the “soft skills” of leadership and human dynamics and learning to deal with the messiness before it becomes dysfunction.

Ray Ivany commented, “If you ignore the transitions people need to go through, you will not get to high performance.”  He suggested that in the book Good to Great, Collins overrates leadership and underrates the human transitions people need to make, not just in their professional lives but in their personal lives as well.

The culture in many workplaces supports a fundamental separation of self: “please do not bring your whole self, just bring the part you need to get your job done.  We will all pretend that professional growth is isolated from personal growth and we’ll just focus on that part. And when we don’t get the best out of you, we will just assume it’s because you are lazy, are just putting the time in and really don’t want to take any initiative.”

But take a good look around: People do not wake up in the morning desiring to put in mediocre performance; most people are thirsting for a deeper meaning in their work and believe it is unachievable, believe their initiative is not welcome and so they leave a part of themselves at the door, trying to collect it at the end of the day when they go home.

Too many rules in our organizations – the stated and the unstated – create the conditions that make it extremely difficult to tap into the full potential of our people.  And when we do put the toe of empowerment in the water and are met with resistance we withdraw it quickly rather than persevering.  We often do not support people in transition, we make it more difficult for them to navigate it.

It is the job of the leader(s) to create the environment and set the conditions that allow people to do extraordinary work.  People need help in unlocking the part of the heads and their hearts they cannot get to themselves.  Leaders create these conditions by lightening up on the rules and instead providing clarity and context.  With clarity and context people have enough freedom and flexibility to be responsive to the needs and requests of others and the organization. and to do it in ways that make sense to them.

As a leader, in order to do that well, you need to be in fundamental alignment with the core of who you are and your values. The greater your own personal integrity and center, the easier it is to let people run with their own ideas.  With the right conditions, things you could never dream will emerge in the most delightful and unexpected ways.

This kind of emergence is not likely to happen in organizations that reject failure.  The one thing we are assured off as we move toward higher performance is more failure.  That may be counter-intuitive but failure is where creativity and innovation often meet.  Creating a culture that makes it safe for people in your organization to fail for the sake of learning with no blame attached is a component of high performance organizations.

Where and how does the shape of your leadership need to shift in order to support your organization in a quest for exceptional performance?  What systems can you put in place that allow your people to become the best they can be – an integrated human being showing up in the fullness of who they are ready to offer more than most imagine possible

 

One AoH Training Does Not a Practitioner Make

From the last few Art of Hosting trainings I have co-hosted there are two things that I am increasingly aware of: what it means to be a practitioner of the Art of Hosting and the value and contribution of stewarding to the field and the learning and growth of all.

People come to Art of Hosting trainings hungry for any number of things: to learn more about the methodologies and practices, to connect into a sense of community, to find refuge from the craziness of the worlds they live and work in, to deepen their own self leadership, to find new ways to be in the world, to discover mates they can work and play with in the world, because they have been part of a process somewhere that has drawn from Art of Hosting and they want to learn more and many more reasons I’m sure.  And they go away refreshed, curious, hungry for more and a bit hesitant around how they can bring this back to their life and work.

Two things I am aware of: to really be a practitioner of an Art requires practice and one Art of Hosting training does not a practitioner make.

The Art of Hosting field is incredibly rich and diverse and linked to so many other fields: World Cafe, Circle Practice, Open Space Technology, the Chaordic Field, Theory U, Appreciative Inquiry and more.  When we call a three for four day training, the breadth and scope of the days is shaped by the intended purpose and the people who show up – responsive to the collective need of the group, no matter whether it is a public or client offering.  There is no such thing as a set agenda.  It is a fluid process that the host team and the participants all contribute to.  It also means that the host team is having to pick and choose among the vast array of possible offerings that could flow into the training.  It is not possible to do them all.

All of these things – the hosting team, the purpose, the participants, the choices made within a training ground – contribute to the look, feel and shape of each training, while some underlying things always remain – paying attention to the field, holding space for co-creation and emergence, recognizing the interplay between the dynamics in the field and the learning needs of the group, between self hosting and collective hosting.  No two offerings are ever exactly the same, even if the same hosting team is in place – because the hosting team is also in its own learning individually and collectively and because of the responsiveness to each new training ground.

One Art of Hosting training offers a slice of the Art of Hosting field, even if it is a large slice.  Another Art of Hosting training will show different nuances, different strengths, different emphases and be just as relevant and meaningful as a reflection of the field.  If we leave an AoH training believing this is the way it is – and the only way – we will have missed something fundamentally important – that a key underlying principle is responsiveness to need, co-creation which influences the flow of any training or practice ground, paying attention to what’s in the space and what’s wanting to happen.

It really does take a number of trainings to have a more fulsome understanding and experience of AoH and what’s possible and really understand how AoH contributes to the shifting shape of the world.  We become practitioners when we practice and learn from what we practice.  The next post will explore some ways that practice shows up and how to ask for and offer support in the practice and a future post will look at the questions and observations that have been occurring to me about the role and importance of stewarding.